Column: What In-N-Out's vaccine standoff reveals about the California dream
Last week, on the day a San Francisco In-N-Out made national headlines for refusing to enforce COVID-19 vaccination checks on customers, I did something I rarely do.
I went to In-N-Out.
I don't hate the company, but I have spent the last three years tweeting hundreds of times, “In-N-Out is overrated” and “In-N-Out fanboys are the worst” to friends and foes alike.
It's fun to troll people with the truth: That the Irvine-based chain’s burgers are pretty good but nowhere near great. That while they pay employees good wages, their French fries taste like the crinkle paper used for packaging. That In-N-Out’s branding — T-shirts with classic muscle cars, a palm-tree motif, a jingle that sounds like a throwaway track on K-Earth — is cheap nostalgia for people whose salad days are behind them.
My stance has long been a lonely one, as evidenced by the company’s continued expansion across the West and legions of devoted fans who hound me for my heresy.
But In-N-Out’s surprisingly outspoken anti-vaccine mandate move — Chief Legal and Business Officer Arnie Wensinger announced in a statement that the company "refuse[d] to be the vaccination police" for a policy they consider "intrusive, improper, and offensive" — has brought more people to my side than ever before. Now, my social media accounts are filled with former customers who vow to never again chow down on a Flying Dutchman washed down with pink lemonade.
I thought about the uproar as I pulled off the 5 Freeway and went to the drive-through line at In-N-Out at the Tustin Market Place. I wanted to see whether the company was really as pandejo as critics make them out to be, and whether In-N-Out was going to pay a price as their entry fee into America's pandemic wars.
Kinda, and no.
The line snaked around a parking lot, and diners packed the restaurant's indoor and outdoor tables even though it was about 9:30 at night. A masked employee took my order for a double-double animal-style cheeseburger with mustard, pickles and chopped peppers; an unmasked one gave me my receipt. Unmasked workers toiled in the kitchen; masked ones took walk-in orders behind plexiglass.
I thought about how a COVID-19 outbreak at two In-N-Out locations in Colorado infected over 120 employees. I thought about public officials who don’t want to consider the possibility that maybe the company is right. Maybe forcing restaurants to check the vaccine status of customers is a hassle that doesn’t fully stop the spread of COVID-19 (full disclosure: My wife runs a restaurant where masks are mandatory because even a vaccinated person can still transmit the disease to others — and the disease is still going around).
As another masked employee handed me my order and I drove off, I finally realized who the true fool is when it comes to In-N-Out.
All of us.
We’re spending so much time debating the political posturing of one company because it’s not just any company: It’s In-N-Out. One of those rare things Californians from Redding to Chula Vista, rich and poor, red and blue, can agree upon, like a love of Huell Howser or a hatred for smug New Yorkers.
This mega-company has long fostered a feel-good, small-town ethos to become an avatar for the idealized California life like no other company has — more affordable than Patagonia, less bro-y than Tesla, not as omnipresent as Disney.
Over its 70-plus years, the tiny Baldwin Park burger stand opened by Harry and Esther Snyder transformed into an empire thanks to descendants who masterfully played us like chumps. They exploited one of the worst attributes of the California psyche: mass delusion.
To paraphrase Joan Didion, we tell ourselves lies in order to live in California, and In-N-Out proves that.
This is a company that has never changed what it is: a nostalgia factory that promises a trip back to a time where things were simpler and more conservative. Hidden biblical verses on cups and wrappers land on salvation through Jesus Christ as their takeaway instead of some of the other things Christ said that might inconvenience In-N-Out's corporate philosophy. Like rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, or that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (those verses are Matthew 22:21 and Matthew 19:24, respectively, by the way).
In-N-Out has consistently donated tens of thousands of dollars to the California Republican Party and hundreds of thousands of dollars to restaurant and business lobbying groups.
While campaign finance records show employees have donated to Democrat candidates, In-N-Out Chief Operating Officer Mark Taylor and his wife Traci (the half-sister of CEO Lynsi Snyder, the granddaughter of Harry and Esther whom Forbes estimates to be worth $4.2 billion) donated more than $15,000 to the national Republican Party and Donald Trump through the 2020 election cycle.
The company has double-doubled down on its rightward creep in recent years, as Lynsi Snyder has become more open about her evangelical beliefs. But its politics were grilled onto its iconic logo from the start: That yellow arrow that zips atop the company’s name? It rises leftward before swinging down a hard right.
They’ve never hidden who they were, yet In-n-Out sold a fantasy of apolitical niceness that most Californians slurped up like one of the chain's fantastic strawberry milkshakes. The fooled even include Vice President Kamala Harris. She got In-N-Out for staffers and reporters who flew back with her to Washington, D.C., this September after an appearance with California Gov. Gavin Newsom at an anti-recall election rally — never mind that In-N-Out had contributed $40,000 to the California Republican Party in July.
It takes a delusional Californian to think In-N-Out was anything more than what it is, just like it takes a delusional Californian to build houses in fire country and then rebuild them when infernos inevitably burn them down. Or take showers longer than five minutes. Or live with no earthquake kit, or think online shopping is ethical.
Why did so many fall for In-N-Out’s ruse? It’s more than just the offerings, which — again — are better than good but not anywhere close to the revelation acolytes make them out to be. It’s because in this famously fractured nation-state, Californians yearn for a collective hero, something or someone who rises above our ideological and geographic divides to connect us.
But they're just as imperfect as the rest of us — and that's a good thing. If In-N-Out continues to issue strident press releases about government overreach seemingly cribbed from a Tucker Carlson tirade, maybe Californians will be convinced to drop our collective delusions once and for all.
As for my double-double? I ate it on the drive back home — tasty, but not worth the wait. The Habit chain is better.
I found the biblical verse on its wrapper and looked up Nahum 1:7, which reads, “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; and he knoweth them that trust in him.”
A promise of comfort as a reward for unquestioning faith: That’s what California is all about.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.